The body of Walter Lübcke, a prominent German regional politician noted for his vocal support for immigration, was found outside his own house late on the night of 2 June with a bullet in his head.
He was declared dead shortly thereafter.
Lübcke had received death threats on and off since October 2015, when he publicly stated that he was happy to accept immigrants in Germany.
Explaining his position, he said he was proud that his country was a place worth moving to and capped off his remarks by saying that people who opposed immigration were free to leave.
That statement was recorded, posted on YouTube the next day, and widely disseminated among far-right nationalists online.
Akif Pirinçci, a novelist who has become a key figure in the anti-immigrant PEGIDA movement, pointed to Lübcke’s comments as evidence of a powerful figure who had lost touch, saying that he had overlooked a better alternative: concentration camps.
As comments on the YouTube post grew increasingly violent, right-wing media outlets released Lübcke’s personal information, including his home address. He and his family were subsequently subjected to months of death threats.
The frenzy slowly subsided until two blogs revived it earlier this year.
One headline misleadingly stated that Lübcke, a member of Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU), “advised Germans to leave the country if they do not agree with Merkel’s asylum policy” without mentioning that this was in reference to the same controversy from three years earlier.
On 15 June, police arrested 45-year-old Stephan Ernst on the basis of a DNA match with traces of skin found on the jacket Lübcke was wearing when he died.
Ernst later confessed to the murder, saying it was a direct response to Lübcke’s statement from 2015, but then subsequently recanted for reasons that are not yet clear.
Stephan Ernst has a long history of violence and far-right activity, including several arrests. In 1989, when he was 16 years old, he set a house on fire. In 1992, he was charged with attempted murder after he stabbed an immigrant who he thought was hitting on him in a public bathroom.
The following year, Ernst parked a car with a pipe bomb outside a shelter for asylum seekers. He was given a combined six-year sentence for the attempted murder and bombing, but even in prison, he attacked a fellow inmate — an immigrant — with an iron chair leg.
Upon his release, Stephan Ernst became active in the neo-Nazi scene, joining the fascist Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD) while also establishing contact with Combat 18, a UK-based neo-Nazi terror organization that takes its name from the first and eighth letters of the alphabet, namely the initials A and H for Adolf Hitler.
In 2009, Ernst was one of over 300 neo-Nazis arrested for attacking a union event in Dortmund with bottles and wooden poles. He then fell off German authorities’ radar due to the fact that he managed to go ten years without being arrested.
Ernst did, however, make a donation to the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) for their 2016 electoral campaign, earmarked specifically for Björn Höcke, the most prominent figure in AfD’s radical nationalist wing.
Lübcke’s murder came just five months after Paweł Adamowicz, mayor of the Polish city of Gdansk, was stabbed to death on stage at a charity fundraiser in January.
His killer claimed he was motivated by revenge at having been imprisoned for five years under Adamowicz’s party, Civic Platform. But an overheated television campaign condemning his pro-immigrant stance (which took cues from the ruling, far-right Law and Justice Party) and a “public death certificate” Adamowicz received from a nationalist youth group made violence against him more likely.
Two years prior to that, British Labour MP Jo Cox was also stabbed to death in broad daylight.
In Cox’s case, there was little question about the political meaning of the act: coming a week before the Brexit vote, her killer was heard shouting “Keep Britain independent,” “Britain first,” and “This is for Britain” as he was stabbing her.
A few days earlier, Cox had published an impassioned defence of immigration while arguing against Brexit.
Jo Cox was murdered the same day that Nigel Farage, the public face of the pro-Brexit campaign, premiered a controversial advertisement featuring a long, dense line of dark-skinned people moving toward the camera and the phrase “Breaking Point.”
Amid a concurrent scandal involving far-right active-duty members of the military, death lists, and millenarian preppers, German authorities are currently investigating whether Lübcke’s killer may have been part of a larger far-right network.
Meanwhile, provocations against political figures have continued.
The mayors of Cologne and Altena, both of whom have survived life-threatening knife attacks perpetrated by far-right nationalists within the past several years, are two of several German politicians who have received death threats since Lübcke died.
Meanwhile, a prominent “identitarian” movement supporter took to Instagram to declare, “Today Walter [Lübcke], tomorrow Janzen” in reference to journalist David Janzen, who covers the far right. Nationalists have widely celebrated Lübcke’s death on other social media platforms.
German right-wing conspiracy theorists were also busy immediately after Ernst’s arrest.
Many of them blamed the media for deliberately misconstruing the story (YouTuber Kai aus Hannover 2, for example, constructed a theory that the press was actually covering up for a murderous paedophile) or trying to destroy their movement (YouTube channel Heimatliebe warned of a “witch hunt”).
“Identitarian” movement leader Martin Sellner, who received a large donation from Christchurch, New Zealand mass-killer Branton Tarrant, said in a recorded statement that the “enemies” of his movement are trying to “destroy” it. Listeners were left to decide for themselves who those enemies might be, given that Sellner declined to specify.
Vague insinuations of existential enemies have become standard operating procedure in far-right nationalist movements across Europe and the US and are cited more and more frequently in connection with “lone wolf” attacks.
No one personally instructed Tarrant to carry out a massacre, nor white nationalist Dylann Roof, who killed nine black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, nor “incel” Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in a misogynistic rampage in Isla Vista, California in 2014.
Their actions were carried out within a media environment that indulges in narratives of invasion and betrayal that ostensibly can only be countered by courageous, self-sacrificing warriors.
For “incels” (short for “involuntarily celibate”), the enemy in these narratives is typically women who will not have sex with them.
For white nationalists, it is usually immigrants and the governmental, media, or activist communities that support them.
Walter Lübcke falls under the governmental category.
Photograph courtesy of Rasande Tyskar. Published under a Creative Commons license.